Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Following Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's trip to Washington this week, President Clinton has asked Congress for an additional $750 million aid package for the Middle East.
Of that amount, $450 million is to help Israel offset costs incurred in its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon last May and to help beef up its strategic defense system against missile threats from Iraq and Iran.
It also includes a one-off grant of $225 in military aid to Egypt and $75 million in economic and military aid for Jordan.
Faced by Clinton's request in the twilight of his presidency and at a time when the peace process is all but wrecked, Congressmen are reported to be questioning the request.
For Israel, the amount falls short of the $800 million that Barak reportedly asked for and Clinton promised.
The issue is clearly an extremely sensitive one for the Israeli government. Despite repeated queries, the prime minister's office declined to comment.
Another government spokesman, when pressed, would only say that the matter of the $800 million "had been brought up," but he would not say whether this had occurred during Barak's recent visit.
A former Israeli government liaison to the U.S. Congress, Yoram Ettinger, said that getting that money and an upgrade in U.S.-Israeli strategic relations were the "primary reasons" Barak went to Washington.
In a statement released while Barak was in Washington, the prime minister's spokesman said the meeting "mainly dealt with the urgent need to fully implement [ceasefire] understandings, i.e. halting violence and Palestinian incitement."
For Barak, getting the money is a "major issue for domestic reasons," Ettinger said. If he doesn't get it, money already spent on reinforcing the northern border with Lebanon after the troop pullout will have to be taken from other Israeli coffers.
Israel had hoped to obtain the sum before Clinton leaves office. Clinton has consistently pledged large American financial support for Israeli concessions in peace negotiations, although Congress has been reluctant to back up the large-scale gifts in exchange for hopes of "peace."
When Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed an accord at the Wye Plantation in Maryland two years ago, Clinton promised Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians large sums of money.
He subsequently had to beg, plead and refuse to sign the Foreign Appropriations Bill a year later in attempts to get Congress to back his pledge.
Calling the current situation a "vague agreement," which had apparently been made between Jerusalem and Washington, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Zalman Shoval said he thought its unlikely that the funding would be approved at this time.
Congress is already on its way out, Shoval said, and it could be a long time until the next Congress convenes and discusses the matter.
The head of the House appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, Sonny Callahan of Alabama, said he was skeptical about the timing and appropriateness of the president's request.
Callahan said in a statement that he applauded "the president's untiring efforts to help bring about a lasting peace" to the Middle East.
"That said, I remain very skeptical, especially in the waning days of the Clinton presidency, that a true, lasting peace agreement can be secured simply by promising even more money than has been promised before."
According to Ettinger, Barak made "certain concessions ... based on the assumption that money was forthcoming."
"Maybe it's a lesson not to transfer territory which is very tangible and permanent," he added, for the promise of money, which is "very tenuous."
According to a senior Pentagon official, Defense Secretary William Cohen will likely discuss the $800 million request during a visit to Israel next week.
"The subject of increase in assistance will certainly be part of that [visit]," he said at a briefing in Washington in response to a reporter's question on the $800 million request. "The Israelis looking for additional support for certain programs undoubtedly will be on the agenda there."